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Road to recovery: Smelser plans to run in Crazy 8s four months after devastating accident

Joe Avento • Jul 9, 2019 at 10:10 PM

JOHNSON CITY — When Michael Smelser takes his first step in the Crazy 8s 8-K Road Race, he’ll already be a winner.

That’s because four months ago, running was the furthest thing from his mind. He was in a race of a different kind, a race to recover.

Smelser, a teacher at Liberty Bell Middle School and a local soccer coach, was severely injured in March when a kerosene can he was using to fuel a campfire exploded, leaving him badly burned.

His recovery has been tough and painful, but he still plans to run in Saturday night’s race in Kingsport. He’s running partly because he has competed in every one of the previous Crazy 8s and partly to show gratitude to the thousands of people who have offered prayers and support of every kind during his traumatic ordeal. He is officially the torch bearer for the race, but he has bigger plans.

“When Hank (Brown) and Natalie (Whitlock) asked me to be the torch bearer, I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Smelser said. “Then I thought I have to run in that thing. I’ve always run in that thing. It’s something I’m going to do. Whenever I finish, if it’s midnight, it’s midnight. It doesn’t matter.

“Just being able to put one foot in front of another and run, that’s all that matters.”

Shortly after the accident, Smelser seriously thought he might not have a foot to put in front of the other. At the Joseph Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia, he was told he had burns over 40 percent of his body. His left leg took the brunt of the damage, and doctors told him they had to cut deep into his limb to find tissue that would work with the skin graft, which came from his back. Nine operations followed.

“It’s definitely something I would not want to wish on anybody,” he said. “I put my faith in God. When I woke up I was like, ‘This is bigger than me. You’ve got this.’ It was totally out of my hands.

“When I was laying there in the hospital bed, all the worst runs through your mind. The ward that I was on, when you move around and you see the other patients and you see people without limbs, there was that moment where I thought that could happen to me. I was thinking this isn’t good. Running has always been a part of my life. It’s always something I enjoyed, something I’ve done every day, rain or shine.”

After telling his doctor he just wanted to walk again, Smelser heard some encouraging news. The doctor, after examining the burns and seeing the fitness of Smelser’s legs, knew he wasn’t dealing with an average person.

“He said when he opened me up that first night, ‘I knew you didn’t have the legs of a 46-year-old man who sat on the couch and drank beer,’ ” Smelser said. “He told me his goal was to have me back doing what I did before.”

As the doctors took skin from Smelser’s back for the grafts on his legs, they noticed a tattoo on his shoulder. It’s an Ironman logo from when he completed an Ironman race 14 years earlier.

“He said, ‘Now you’re going to have to send me a picture of your second Ironman tattoo,’ “ said Smelser, who has coached soccer at Science Hill and David Crockett high schools as well as local clubs. “It was unbelievable what they did for me. That’s why they’re the best.”

Smelser said he went through the gamut of emotions after the accident.

“When I woke up after that first night, I was literally a mummy,” he said. “My hands were all wrapped. My fingers were all wrapped. I just laid there and prayed and I was expecting the worst, especially when you’re a mummy. I said, ‘Please, let me still have 10 fingers and 10 toes.’ I started counting and pushing and wiggling and everything else.”

Eventually, after several painful operations, Smelser walked. At first the staff at the hospital had to force him to take a step. It was too painful for his feet to touch the ground. He graduated to a walker and then crutches before being able to walk with the assistance of nurses and family members, including his wife, Betsy.

“I finally got to where I could do it by myself,” he said. “And then I started jogging and now I’m jogging a whole lot more.”

As word of his accident and injuries spread, support began to come in. Facebook posts offered encouragement. Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett highs schools held a “Michael Smelser Night” during a soccer game, and “Smelser Strong” T-shirts were sold with proceeds going to his family.

“I knew I had a lot of people back home praying for me,” Smelser said. “I wanted to push forward for them. It was unbelievable. All of a sudden it just took off from everywhere. The whole Tri-Cities just came together. It wasn’t just the soccer community. It was the running community, the schools. Dobyns-Bennett, where I went, then Science Hill, and Liberty Bell, where I teach, they all came together. It helped out a lot to get me out of that place. It was overwhelming.

“Now here we are and I’m planning on running. I’ve come a long way.”

Being able to run again is a blessing for the man who has run in the Boston Marathon three times, but physically it’s been a challenge. The skin grafts on his legs make running feel different.

“The range of motion … there’s not a whole lot of elasticity to it,” he said. “It feels like I have those old school weights you can wrap around your ankle or I’m running in combat boots. That’s what it feels like. Both of my knees are completely wrapped with my own skin, so the range of motion there is not that great.”

The Crazy 8s will be a family affair for Smelser, who expects his brother, sister and oldest son to run with him.

“When I was younger, I was competitive in these races,” he said. “You want to win the thing. Then as you get older, you want to win your age group. Now life has kind of changed a little bit more. Now I’m just looking at the finish line.”